Elegant surprise

The Baltimore Sun

While President Barack Obama talked about hope in his inaugural address, first lady Michelle Obama wore it, quite literally, on her sleeve. Last night, she twirled from ball to ball in an ethereal white gown that seemed to float and glide behind her. The fashion world sighed in appreciation.

"She's not going to be a predictable play-it-safe first lady," Nicole Phelps, executive editor of Style.com, said approvingly.

At the swearing-in ceremony, Obama wore a golden yellow sheath dress and matching coat in an optimistic hue that seemed to catch and reflect the midday sunshine. With it, she made symbolism a fashion statement.

"I think the yellow symbolized hope and renewal," said Sasha Charnin Morrison, fashion director for Us Weekly. "This has been their message all along."

Added Phelps: "Yellow is the most optimistic color there is."

At the inaugural galas, Obama debuted a one-shoulder gown by Jason Wu, a Taipei-born designer in his 20s. The gown, made especially for the first lady, is silk chiffon embellished with organza and Swarovski crystal rhinestones and silver thread embroidery. Its chiffon skirt had a bit of a train that swayed ever-so-slightly as the couple danced to Etta James' "At Last."

"Who else would've been able to pull off this look?" Morrison said. "The dress is soft and flowing, which is the reverse of what was expected. But this is what makes this first lady extraordinary. ... This was just soft and lovely and very pretty. And it didn't throw extravagance into everyone's face."

Both looks showcased Obama's fashion signature: an affinity for lesser-known designers. The yellow ensemble, a hue technically called "lemongrass," was made by Cuban-American Isabel Toledo, a designer whose work Obama has worn before.

The Toledo outfit also showed off Obama's recession-savvy ability to blend the unlikely concepts of "high style" and "low budget."

The outfit was made of a Swiss wool lace, with layers of pashmina tulle and a French silk lining for warmth. Between the jacket and the dress was a lightweight cardigan. Pulling inspiration from a green ribbon on the coat, Obama accented the ensemble with green patent leather Jimmy Choo kitten heels and a pair of green leather gloves from J.Crew.

A bejeweled collar seemed to both pin the cardigan together and dress up the look - sparkle matched by simple, diamond stud earrings.

"She looked very modern," Morrison said. "She wore something very elegant and very individual but definitely something that feels very real and will probably be copied and will go down in history."

Barack Obama's fashion statement was much more subdued during the inauguration. In a black wool overcoat and deep red tie that carried a bit of sheen, Obama, as Morrison put it, let his speech do the talking. His tuxedo for the galas, simple black with white tie, seemed designed to set off his wife's gown.

At the swearing-in, the first daughters wore brilliant-hued coats from J. Crew's kids line, Crewcuts. Malia, 10, wore a double-breasted periwinkle coat tied at the waist with a blue ribbon. Her sister, Sasha, 7, wore a bubblegum pink coat accented with both an orange satin bow and an orange scarf.

Phelps appreciated that, for once, Michelle Obama didn't dress to match her girls, instead choosing her own look, something to mark the significance of the occasion.

"It was classic but with those unexpected elements of green - classic with a twist would be a fair way to say it," Phelps said.

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